Sarkozy set for first Vatican visit

French President Nicolas Sarkozy travels to the Vatican on Thursday for talks with Pope Benedict XVI and a visit that his office has described as ‘extremely important.’
During his first trip to the Vatican since taking office, the president will be made an honorary canon of Saint-Jean-de-Latran, a distinction bestowed on all French heads of state.
“This extremely important visit will give the president an opportunity to reaffirm his respect and commitment, not to religion in particular… but to spiritual issues in general,” said presidential spokesman David Martinon.
After arriving at the Vatican, Sarkozy will go directly into talks with the pope and then meet with senior Vatican officials before holding a working dinner with Italian and Spanish prime ministers Romano Prodi and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Rome.
The Vatican has portrayed the visit as routine and part of the president’s international agenda since he took over from Jacques Chirac in May.
A Catholic, Sarkozy has said that French identity is deeply rooted in the Christian faith and has often spoken with admiration about Benedict’s predecessor pope John Paul II among other Catholic leaders.
His visit to the Vatican comes amid a media frenzy in France over his reported romance with singer and ex-model Carla Bruni, just two months after a divorce from his second wife Cecilia was announced.
Sarkozy is expected to extend a formal invitation to the pope to pay an official visit to France next year, according to French diplomats.
The pope is expected to travel this fall to the southern town of Lourdes, where celebrations are being held to mark 150 years since the young shepherdess Bernadette saw visions of the Virgin Mary.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2007